February 2017

Political and social perception of sanctions

Russian sanctions have had a minor effect on the Polish economy. However, the figures do not speak for themselves, so, have the public and politicians reached similar conclusions?

Russia’s food import ban, introduced as a counter-measure, was meant to divide the European Union on policy towards Russia. It was accompanied by an information campaign promoting a vision of multi-billion losses to be suffered by EU economies and hundreds of thousands lost jobs to be axed. The negligible economic effect of Russian restrictions has so far prevented such outcomes. Sectoral economic sanctions are extended every six months.

The idea behind the sanctions was to drive a wedge between the EU countries and weaken the consensus in individual member states. Restricted access to the Russian market was supposed to lead to high social costs, to target influential interest groups, to incite protests and therefore to force governments to change their policies. In the case of Poland, it was farmers (more broadly, the Polish countryside and local producers) who largely made up the target group. Russia expected Poland’s agriculture workers to express their irritation amidst a period of local, presidential and parliamentary elections.

Neither public opinion nor attitudes of interest groups are easily shaped by quantitative data on the impact of sanctions but are rather dependent on a number of factors: the perceived importance of a given issue, perceived threats, and specific group interests or narratives surrounding sanctions formed in the information space. It is usually difficult to draw objective conclusions of a general nature. Fortunately, public opinion polls have been conducted in Poland which give an insight into Polish society’s thoughts on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the resulting EU sanctions.

According to the results of a public opinion poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Center (CBOS) in August 2014 – shortly after the imposition of sectoral sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions – the majority of Poles supported the imposition of new restrictions (64%) and every fifth respondent (21%) did not approve. The largest group of opponents comprised farmers (35%) who were afraid of the consequences of the Russian embargo imposed on the agri-food sector. It is noteworthy that both proponents and opponents of sanctions were equally skeptical about their potential effectiveness as a means of stifling Russian actions in Ukraine. Opponents were mainly afraid of potential financial losses, whereas proponents were more inclined to focus on the need to resort to punishment and stigmatization. Given that the survey was conducted in the early days of the standoff, opinions were formed around expectations rather than concrete facts.

A further poll was conducted by the same center in June 2015 and respondents declared their unfaltering support for sanctions once again. Nearly half saw the sanctions as too weak and the absolute majority (68%) was in favor of maintaining them. Eleven percent (11%) of respondents were in favor of lifting sanctions. A year after the imposition of sanctions, confidence in their effectiveness in terms of discouraging Russia from fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine increased (44%).

It wasn’t only the public’s positive attitude towards sanctions but also society’s high level of interest in the developments in Ukraine (declared by 69% of Poles) that was politically important. A similar proportion of respondents expressed concerns about the impact of these events on security. Clearly, concerns over the country’s security prevailed over worries about financial losses due to trade restrictions. Moreover, other CBOS surveys on the attitudes of Poles towards other nations have clearly shown a notable increase in resentment towards Russians in recent years (from 33% in 2012 to 50% in 2015) and a slide in levels of fondness for Russians (from 34% to 20% during the same period). This tendency further weakens the inclination of the Polish elites to ease their stances on policy towards Russia.

The ambitions underlying the counter-sanctions which were aimed at increasing the political costs of Poland’s steps towards Russia following the annexation of Crimea remain unfulfilled. None of the major Polish political factions have raised the issue of easing the stance towards Russia during heated election debates. A consensus has been reached by all major political forces in this regard.

New elements have emerged following the end of the electoral period. The issue of the costs associated with sanctions as well as their effectiveness has been raised by politicians from the Polish People’s Party (PSL) and a number of leftist politicians. The PSL’s Leading Council adopted a resolution in 2016 calling for the lifting of economic sanctions against Russia. Apparently, in response to the losses suffered by Polish producers and the supposed ineffectiveness of the sanctions. The non-parliamentary leftist faction has also started looking into the possibility of rebuilding its political capital by advocating the normalization of relations with Russia while maintaining a strong stance on Russia’s policy towards Ukraine. Still, the notion of altering Poland’s current policy towards Russia, including EU sanctions, has not influenced public debate and proponents of it can, therefore, be regarded as marginal.

  Author: Ernest Wyciszkiewicz

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